Customer Reviews: Europe and the People Without History
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on June 26, 2001
Europe and the People Without History describes the very process by which capitalism has spread and permeated throughout the world. Wolf's narrative starts from AD 1400 and ends in the 20th century. He traces the historical events associated with the expansion of European commerce, paying extra attention to the people ignored by traditional history, those who either resisted to the death or toiled under the drudgery of capitalism.
Instead of viewing nations or "tribes" (a problematic term in anthropology) as isolated and coherent entities, Wolf is concerned with the international and intercultural processes that is continually creating new nations, new cultures, new identities. In turn Wolf warns against the reification of complex processes or elements into one seemingly unified term. I find this perspective especially valuable. Generalizations and broad categories must be used with caution, since words and concepts merely reflect aspects of reality, but they themselves are not to be equated with reality.
Another merit of Wolf is his world systems approach. He analyzes world history as a system in which disparate and distant social groups can have important influence on each other. This analytic method rejects the notion that countries are independent and self-contained systems, but instead they are interrelatetd in the larger global processes of change.
Finally, readers should pay extra attention to the concluding chapter. It discusses the nature of ideology, about how it is formed and how it is perpetuated. Wolf reminds the readers that common terms and categories are not innocent words - they are the offspring of constant construction, deconstruction, and redefinition of power relations.
In short, Europe and the People without History will impact the minds of those who have not been exposed to the history of capitalist and colonial expansion. It will force people living in developed nations to reconsider the historical source of their affluency and wealth. Despite the dispassionate and objective tone used in Wolf's analysis of global history, I cannot help but read the book as a somber epitaph to the silent victims of colonization and globalization.
- Malcolm Godwin
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on December 17, 2001
Wolf breaks the paradigm that the world ever was full of isolated pockets of civilized people void of contact with others. By tracing routes of fur trade, slave trade, early movements of people, materials and ideas, Wolf examines the world before Europe "civilized" the world. He is able to show how contact with European traders change the lifestyles of groups of people who already had fully developed cultural, linguistic and political traditions. How trade, bureaucracy, military force and violence influenced the people with whom the traders contacted illustrates the fact that "globalization" is hardly a recent phenomenon.
This provides the background for understanding the current changes in the transition of ideas in the world. Without Wolf's excellent work, it becomes possible to get lulled into the trap that the "Internet" changed the world. In fact, it did not provide contact for people where none previously existed. Electronic media does provide a new medium by which the transfer of ideas can take place. It changes the nature of that transmission, but it does not create a transmission where none previously existed.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon July 11, 2000
This interesting book by a well known anthropologist is aimed at describing and analyzing the transformations wrought by the expansion of European commerce and capitalism in the last few centuries. Wolf is concerned particularly at reconstructing the often ignored history of indigenous groups generally ignored or seen as passive participants in conventional, 'eurocentric', accounts. He also wishes to remind anthropologists that social features are often the product of highly individual historic processes and not necessarily intrinsic or universal features of human existence. Finally, he hopes to escape the sterility of concentrating on abstract social processes by emphasizing the historical nature of events and the key role of political and especially, basic features of economic organization. With respect to these goals, this is a very successful book. The coverage of the transformation of societies all over the world by European expansion is excellent and the product of much judicious reading. In this context, Wolf shows well that a number of classic examples of ethnographic inquiry involve societies whose essential forms were shaped by encounters with European commercial and capitalist expansion. These facts destroy the many of the traditional inferences drawn from ethnographic analysis. This book has some significant flaws. It contains some tendentious chapters and paragraphs devoted to theorizing. Like much social science theorizing, these sections contain a good bit of commonsense dressed up in dense language and a fair amount of argumentation that will be meaningful only to those involved in these recondite debates. Wolf draws heavily on the Marxist (Marxian) tradition. This has pros and cons. On the one hand, this is very appropriate as Wolf's theme is really an explication of Marx's great insight into the discontinuity introduced into human history by capitalism. In this sense, the use of Marxist categories of analysis is successful and has real analytic power. Wolf is careful also not to exaggerate the power of these ideas. On the other hand, in the later parts of the book, his reliance of Marxist ideas such as the surplus value idea and his analysis of politics in a Marxist manner is superficial, unconvincing, and glosses over many, many key issues. Still, this is a very good book and if you are looking for books that attempt a literally global view of history, this is an excellent starting point.
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on May 12, 2001
The rather odd name of this book refers to the tendency of many social scientists to evaluate non-western peoples without considering that they have a unique history that needs to be taken into account if we are to gain any understanding of them. Not surprisingly the author attempts remedy this shortcoming in a sweeping analysis of the last 600 years of human history. If you are a person who like myself would like to come to understand why human affairs are what they are today I recommend this book as the single best starting point. This is not to say that I think Wolf is right about everything that he writes, no work of this scope will achieve that, but he covers the field and knows the sources. The bibliography is a great resource, though a little dated. Ralph J. Pledger, Ph.D.
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on November 11, 2014
Eric Wolf’s work is a great breakdown and analysis of the rise of colonial Europe and the resulting modern world we have today. Wolf thoroughly explains the backgrounds of each major cultural group and their movements and motivations throughout history. The setting for the book starts off by explaining the major groups of the world into the 1400s. Wolf uses this background to set a framework, illustrating that the European powers at the start of the 1400s did not stand out as having more power or control. Instead the overly fragmented nature would stand out to an observer, making the prospect of the ‘west’ soon to be controlling the world as far off. This chapter titled ‘the world in 1400’ I personally believe is the most revealing to the average reader. Wolf in this chapter uses the concept of an observer being able to see different civilizations and regions all in 1400. It is very true that such an experience would certainly lead the observer to have a very different future in mind than the one of the rapid expansion of the European powers. As shown during the beginning of the 1400s there were several powers including the Ottomans that would have seemed better placed for global control. However, Wolf thoroughly explains that the fragmented, geographic, and resulting mercantile focus is what led to European global expansion.
The specific historical circumstances and geographic location Wolf argues were the catalysts to the rise of the European powers. He argues that the Ottomans and other powers in the east forced the European rulers to focus their efforts on westward expansion. Apart from the power superiority in the east the divided fragmented nature of the European world ultimately also aided expansion. The power vacuum in Europe during this period made for constant warring and plotting by different rulers and ‘states.’ This led to increase in mercantile pursuits that were first seen by the merchant republics of Italy. Constant warring and vying for power allowed for these merchants to prosper greatly. Demand for resources in different areas quickly increased the exchange and volume of traded goods. With this increase in trade and commerce came a constant increase in innovation and efficiency, in both the allocation of resources and in their production. During this time an increase in technology also allowed for more productive travel, which in turn resulted in an even greater increase in trade. Ultimately this mercantile background in Europe and the Ottoman power gap in the east is what made for Explorers like Columbus to set commerce minded expeditions across the Atlantic. Wolf then covers the effects of this rise on native populations and the resulting lead to Capitalism.
The discovery of new vegetables and resources in the new world led to rapidly increases in overall demand. This huge explosion of demand quickly became unsustainable further jeopardizing the well being of local native populations. Exotic luxury items and resources were heavily demanded by Europeans, whom quickly became dependent on such goods, further increasing their demand. Slavery and different forms of indentured servitude also took off during this period. Greatly impacting the demographics of local populations and dispersing other groups. While the native populations had already greatly suffered from disease and early explorers, the demand for production depleted local numbers to an even greater extent. As mentioned by Wolf, entire populations of natives seized to exist while the vast majorities were relocated to lands they were not familiar with. At the same time new demographics in the south of America were created, by being the first region to have a self-replicating slave population. Apart from the toll on local people and slave labor, it was during this time that the European powers quickly moved towards what is currently identified as capitalism. While the demand for a constant increase in production and profit was extremely detrimental to local groups, it is clear that this demand of production resulted in constant innovation allowing for the rapid advances seen by ‘western’ society. Colonial interests coupled with the focus on production and trade created an economic and technological gap between Europe and the rest of the world that is only starting to be balanced today. This rise is what resulted in the modern concept of anthropology, thus to understand anthropology it is vital to understand it’s historical background.
I believe Eric Wolf’s work to be a tremendous historical background and framework for both anthropology and for history. I would highly recommend this book not only to students of anthropology but of many other disciplines as well. From history to economics Europe and The People without History is a fascinating informative read. The important questions of why the ‘west’ became the west, and the factors that made it so seem to be asked less and less. Instead society seems to gloss over history and think that the european powers were always in some way superior, and thus destined to colonize the new world first. Wolf’s work does a perfect job of explaining the the reality of european expansion and why mechanisms such as capitalism resulted. It is very important to be able to understand that our modern society is just one culture and that does not necessarily mean it is the best one. Instead it is vital to know that things are as they are for very specific historic/geographic reasons. Had certain cultures not boomed or busted when than they did then it could have been the Chinese sailing to the New World or even the West Africans before Europe. History is certainly in the past, but understanding the background behind modern society helps a person understand why we have our mindset. To understand anthropology one must understand the biases and background behind our modern perspective, Wolf’s book does a terrific job of doing this and I recommended it to everyone interested in the field.
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on April 8, 2009
I had to read this book for History 101: The Modern World in college, and it was pretty good. It is a good antidote to the usual history textbooks in that it tells history from the perspectives of the less powerful members of society, and is not Eurocentric. I would also recommend "A People's History of the United States" by Howard Zinn as a good complement to this book. This book is more sophisticated and less biased though, but Zinn's is more of a page turner that keeps you glued. Read them both and then decide which one is better.
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on September 2, 1999
A very deep book indeed! Not light summer reading. Recommended to me by an anthropology professor, Wolf's treatise delves into the social, political and economic nook and crannies of European colonization - specifically the social dynamism between capital accumulation and labor power. This is a book that Karl Marx would have very much approved of.
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on April 14, 2015
Excellent resource. I used this book throughout college for many different classes, and ultimately for my senior's thesis.
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on March 12, 2016
Good conditions for the price.
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on March 13, 2006
Was capitalism a cultural project? Were the structural changes that created modern nations (rooted in capital) accompanied by significant and corollary changes in values, faith, religion, kinship, individualism, art, and other cultural phenomena? From the vantage point of twenty-first century cultural studies, the answer is an obvious "yes." It is not clear that Eric Wolf shares this vantage point in his field and in his period. For the most part, this work centers physical geographic connection, inclusion, and exclusion - - local and macrocosmic - - as the greatest influence on human behavior. For example: the peasant, newly excluded from the enclosed commons, turns to wage labor due to a lack of survival alternatives. Perhaps the peasant's motive for this change is not the most important question of history, but rather the change that history inscribes upon the peasant's cultural constitution. In other words, is the peasant merely a rational economic actor to be inserted in an equation of geopolitical determinism, or are they compelled at this broad historical juncture to do something newly irrational, counter-instinctual, and alien to the preparation of their human constitution? The problem is that Wolf's cool and rational engagement with the spaces, places, motions, and control of objects still subscribes to a fairly static reification of the individual. This individual must be unmoving in spiritual and cultural practice, trauma, affection, embrace and rejection, or at least conceived of as stable and reasonable outside of this variability, in order for Wolf's historical narrative to be a complete explanation. Of course, no author claims a complete explanation so the question becomes whether or not this is a viable one.

Without a doubt, Wolf's study of objects as moving and formative in the rise of prevailing world power was a radical departure from "situated" anthropology and the isolated empirical engagement of cultural objects. His work takes an important stand against ascribing the exceptionalism of modern nation states backwards through time as an acceptable constraint on historical inquiry. He thus separates himself from the study of "Dutch capitalism" or "Italian mercantilism" and instead presents a vision of connected communities and urban centers. In important ways, he upsets the claim that contemporary geopolitical and cultural divisions make on nature, a fallacy that prevailed across disciplines and credible discourses for centuries. Wolf rocks this boat. Surely, after reading this work, one is less comfortable with terms like "English feudalism."

However, this work does not trouble the claim that capitalism makes on nature because that claim is rooted in a very specific and historically modern reification of the liberal individual. Capitalism constructs the individual qua reason, a mind without a body and a rational actor whose flow is enabled, diverted, reversed, or stopped by resource and object politics. I remain unconvinced that history is quite so simple as changing the levers of human functionalism so articulated. While it is impressive (if not decentering) to document the history and rise of Europe as contingent on global object politics involving diverse peoples - - and the author openly admits that there is great and varied cultural context in each of the areas he connects - - somehow I also saw the "people without history" as the majority of human beings entangled in the wide net of capitalism's reductionism of the individual. I am not convinced that "the migrant's position is determined not so much by the migrant or his culture as by the structure of the situation in which he finds himself" (362). While this is true of physical location and perhaps even economic endeavor, this reduction of positionality is a modern phenomenon of capital. Is there a better interpretive?
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